Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hay Fever: Kurt Vonnegut, Benedict Cumberbatch - and Me


I was not a fan of this particular man reading this particular letter at this sold-out event.


Not at all.


It's not as though I expected this to happen. I had no idea I'd display anything more than admiration - along with a smidge of envy for those who live in the UK and able to attend the Hay Festival.

(Just a smidge, mind you, because I hate long lines -

- and crowds

- and mud.)

Turns out I got a bit distracted - and didn't notice the wave of indignation that would crash over me. Talk about a MESS. I'd have sooner danced in mud puddles on New Year's Eve.

It was easy to see Benedict could make letters come alive as the doomed explorer and dying father, the misunderstood son, the rock star, and, perhaps most effectively, the British soldier and long-distance love, but Kurt Vonnegut? World War II veteran, prisoner of war, failed Saab dealership owner (!) humanist, liberal, artist - and one of the strongest voices of the dissent, disturbance and dissonance in American literature, demanding attention in the post-war years? American writer Kurt Vonnegut, whose voice permeated every single syllable of his writing? The Indianapolis native who found creative, cutting and colorful ways to express himself as both a writer and artist?

Yes. It seemed that British actor (and admitted perfectionist) was going to interpret one of the most distinctive authors in contemporary American fiction.

Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse Five (based on his POW experiences - including the bombing of Dresden by Allies in February 1945), was unlike anything Americans read before, even to those who read his prior science fiction. This New York Times review from March 1969 gives you an indication as to the impact of this modern work -

..As he writes in the introduction to "Slaughterhouse-Five," (Vonnegut) has been trying to write a book about Dresden ever since (the bombing). Now, at last, he's finished the "famous Dresden book."
In the same introduction, which should be read aloud to children, cadets and basic trainees, Mr. Vonnegut pronounces his book a failure "because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." He's wrong and he knows it.
Kurt Vonnegut knows all the tricks of the writing game. So he has not even tried to describe the bombing. Instead he has written around it in a highly imaginative, often funny, nearly psychedelic story. The story is sandwiched between an autobiographical introduction and epilogue.

The book went on to become a critical and commercial success, a motion picture - and a source of controversy in schools and colleges across the United States, which leads us to the letter Vonnegut wrote and Cumberbatch read. The Letters of Note post provides the backstory, as does this 2008 article, so the reader understands why Vonnegut wrote such an impassioned response.

Was I moved by Benedict's reading? Was I proud that Vonnegut's letter was in the spotlight, read by one of the most high-profile performers at Hay?

Ummm, that would be a "No."

What was wrong with me? On The World According to Benedict, we celebrate many things about him on a regular basis - and can find many of his qualities, albeit quirky, still endearing. (It's what fans do, right?) Contributors to the site traveled to the Hay Festival and shared pictures, video, audio and recaps.

What did I do?

I got grumpy. I warmed the unexpected sparks of dissatisfaction by wrapping myself in the stars and stripes of the American flag. First, I mentioned, briefly (the job of Twitter), that Benedict's American accent was distracting. I knew I wasn't alone in that observation, which has been discussed before (also beside the point). I wasn't done, however. I came prepared for battle with more ammunition to prove how unsuitable Benedict Cumberbatch was to read THAT letter. I helpfully brought up:

  • his cursing (in jest) at fans at OzCon who had paid to see him (reported by eyewitnesses and posted on Tumblr and Twitter)
  • his "pet theory" on Top Gear of why British actors play villains instead of Americans (they sound "sharp, intelligent and thinking")
  • his colorful description of Star Trek Into Darkness director JJ Abrams during an interview that I posed could've been a factor in his being passed over for the new Star Wars film.  

While there were some defending Cumberbatch's efforts to portray Vonnegut's passion and anger - as well as trying to explain British vernacular and humour versus the American perspective, others forged ahead, wondering what Cumberbatch will do when attempting a South Boston accent when he begins work on Black Mass.

(It was at this point that supporters and fans started backing away...not saying good-bye, exactly, but quietly exiting the conversations on Twitter and seeking safer ground, away from the scene of character assassination. I don't blame them.)

The next morning, I wondered why I had reacted so negatively and with such passion. What was it about Benedict's reading that got to me? Would I have overlooked it had I seen him in person? Why didn't it bother me when he read the letters of Richard Avedon or Iggy Pop? Both American. Both with name recognition, although perhaps not as widely known as Vonnegut.

What I had been thinking the night before: "Why couldn't an American have read Vonnegut's letter? He's OURS. He's writing of HIS life, his experience, his anger and his disappointment, as an American, with another American who burned his books. He belongs to US."

The problem? I was wrong. VERY wrong. Vonnegut doesn't belong to us. He was born an American, served in Europe during World War II - and wrote for himself, believing in what he felt must be said about war, violence, authoritarianism, organized religion, freedom and the human experience. Powerful words deserve as wide an audience as possible if they are to make the most impact. Given that recent news reports tell of the latest coup in Thailand, restricted internet access in China, media monitoring in Russia - and the continuing drama around Julian Assange and Edward Snowden - Vonnegut's words matter. He kept a copy of the correspondence to Charles McCarthy, school board president of  Drake High School - and later published it -  for a reason. His message has merit:

"...resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive."

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